Japan's turf, US suspect

Resentment in Japan continues after the US turns over a sergeant accused of rape.

A rape is reported. A US military serviceman stands accused. Justice must take its course.

But under whose justice system? This has become an increasingly sensitive and contentious matter as Tokyo and Washington have reached a temporary solution to the dilemma of how to treat US military personnel accused of crimes in Japan.

On Friday, US officials acquiesced to Japanese requests to turn over Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland, who is suspected of raping a woman on June 29.

Sergeant Woodland's turnover followed a week of mounting tensions between Japan and the US - and a growing popular disdain here toward the network of American military bases in Okinawa, host to more than half of nearly 50,000 US troops in Japan.

The handover was applauded by the Japanese government. But many others here say that agreeing to relinquish custody of Mr. Woodland after a bout of diplomatic pressure shows that such matters are governed less by legal standards than by arbitrary political considerations. Far from quelling the discontent, the handover has continued to fuel demands to change the SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement, which governs military relations - the foundation for the US-Japan strategic alliance.

Japan needs "a drastic, drastic, drastic revision on the SOFA," said Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, speaking after the announcement that the US would hand over Woodland to Japanese authorities. Article 17 of the SOFA - a type of arrangement the US has with most countries where it maintains military bases - says US officials reserve the right to hold military personnel suspected of committing crimes until they are indicted or formally charged.

The 1995 incident

Local resentment toward that policy boiled over in 1995, when three US military personnel raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa. That, compounded by a feeling here that US is soft on troops who commit crimes while overseas, gave way to a new clause stipulating that the US would give "sympathetic consideration" to handing over military personnel suspected of serious crimes before charges are filed.

While that gives officials more leeway to keep individual crimes from skewing the entire US-Japan relationship, legal experts suggest that the fuzzy terminology makes for ad hoc justice.

"It' s just saying, 'We'll think about your request and give it some consideration. To me, that was language that was put in there to pacify the Japanese. And when the Japanese agreed to that, I don't know what they thought they had," says Annette Eddie-Callagain, an American lawyer based in Okinawa who represents many US military personnel.

"Sympathetic consideration," she says, "is permissive language - it's not mandatory at all." At the heart of the debate over when the Japanese authorities should get custody over a suspect, she says, is a question of trust.

"In the 1950s and '60s, troops would do things, and then the military would get them out of here," she says. Though that no longer happens, she says, there is still a perception that if the US holds a suspect, he may not be brought to justice or be let off with a wrist-slap.

"We are dealing with two different criminal justice systems, and we're dealing with two different cultures of how justice is done," Ms. Eddie-Callagain adds.

Indeed, part of the reason SOFA agreements were created was to protect American service personnel overseas from criminal-justice systems whose punishments would be considered "cruel and unusual" in the US. The past week's internal debate between Washington and Okinawa has been characterized by concern that handing over Woodland, who maintains his innocence and had not yet been indicted, would set a precedent and create an expectation of military suspects being handed over to foreign authorities, regardless of the SOFA accord. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to discuss possible changes to the SOFA agreement in his July 23 visit here with Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, who called Mr. Powell at home on July 4 to ask for his assistance in transferring Woodland to Japanese authorities. It is not just US officials who may be leery of making changes to the SOFA.

Okinawan opinion vs. Tokyo

While government opposition parties and Okinawans are demanding such changes, Japan' s new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, appeared to take a conciliatory line on the matter and suggested that the current arrangements were sufficiently flexible. "It will be best if a solution can be found that is convincing to everyone, by improving the agreement's application," Mr. Koizumi said after the handover, a statement widely interpreted as showing opposition to changing the SOFA accord. Koizumi's critics, however, say that keeping the agreement as is leaves the Japan-US alliance in a situation where similar crimes will be poised to rock relations at any time, and where due process in such cases may be arbitrary. "Perhaps it looks like the problem will be solved just because they will hand him [Woodland] over," says political observer Yoshi Tsurumi, professor of International Business at Baruch College, City University of New York, speaking in Tokyo. "But every time this happens, they' re just going to some kind of brinkmanship," he says. "So the problem is not solved."

Koizumi and other members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are wary of make revisions to the agreement - at least for now -- because that would open up the larger question of whether Japan should reassess its entire military alignment with the US. "Revision of the SOFA is what Japan and the US needs," Professor Tsurumi says. "But formal revision of the SOFA is like revision of the entire Japan-US military relationship, so they don't want to touch it."

Others, however, want a major overhaul. Activists in Okinawa have been demanding a reduction in US forces on the island, Japan's southernmost prefecture. Naha City Council member Suzuyo Takazato says that at the rape crisis center where she volunteers, there are many complaints of sexual assault that go unreported to the police, or go unprosecuted when victims are afraid to press charges.

The US is "so eager to protect their own members stationed in foreign lands, but they never consider the human rights of local people," says Ms. Takazato. "We are very upset because its being reported that the Okinawan people are calm, but that is not true. People are depressed and discouraged. We feel that for more than half a century, our situation has not been changed, and here we have another act of violence in a public area. We feel powerless."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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